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Kılıçdaroğlu raises concerns over cyber interference in upcoming elections

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Turkey’s main opposition leader and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has raised concerns over potential cyber interference in the upcoming elections slated for May 14, BBC’s Turkish service (BBC Türkçe) reported on Wednesday.

Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), warned Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun about possible “Cambridge Analytica-style” tactics on Twitter, sparking a debate on election meddling.

Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political consulting firm, became infamous for its involvement in the manipulation of voter data and targeted political advertising during the 2016 US presidential election. The company’s tactics have since become synonymous with data privacy violations and unethical practices in election campaigns.

In March 2018 multiple media outlets broke news of Cambridge Analytica’s business practices. The New York Times and The Observer reported that the company had acquired and used personal data about Facebook users from an external researcher who had told Facebook he was collecting it for academic purposes. This led to a major scandal, as the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users were acquired without their explicit consent. Cambridge Analytica was involved in using this data to influence political campaigns, including the 2016 US presidential election.

As a result of the scandal, Cambridge Analytica filed for insolvency proceedings and closed down operations in May 2018.

Altun, as the head of the presidential communications directorate in Turkey, plays a crucial role in shaping and disseminating the government’s messaging under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration. The directorate, established in 2018, has faced criticism for its perceived efforts to manipulate public perception in favor of Erdoğan and his government while also spreading disinformation about the president’s opponents.

According to the BBC report, sources from the CHP claim that Kılıçdaroğlu’s warnings are based on suspicions that the ruling party will launch an online campaign against him using fake videos and images in the last 10 days before the elections.

The opposition leader has been criticizing the government’s divisive language and accusing  it of attempting to manipulate the elections.

In a recent rally in Kayseri on April 29, Kılıçdaroğlu stated, “I know the dirtiest tricks they will try in the last 10 days.” On May 1 he posted a tweet addressing Altun and his team, warning them about the dangers of “meddling with the dark web and foreign intelligence services.”

In response, Altun accused Kılıçdaroğlu of slander and targeting him and his colleagues.

According to the CHP, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) strategy is to generate a negative perception of the opposition leader through fake videos and images online.

According to the BBC report citing CHP sources, Kılıçdaroğlu’s warnings are based on private information he received. They argue that the AKP aims to discourage religious voters who have shifted from the ruling party to the opposition, labeling them as “terrorists” or “coup plotters.” The CHP believes the ruling party is trying to prevent these voters from casting their ballots for Kılıçdaroğlu or even from going to the polls at all.

Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, imprisoned since 2016, has also warned against potential manipulation and disinformation during the election process.

In a series of tweets Demirtaş urged people to be cautious of untrustworthy social media accounts and not to share or engage with any information from these sources.

Observers say Erdoğan is facing the most challenging election of his two-decade rule as he trails Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate of an opposition alliance of six parties, in the polls.

The alliance led by Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to restore democracy, release jailed opposition figures, revive freedom of expression and return to economic orthodoxy if it wins the parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14. Their goal is to undo President Erdoğan’s two-decade legacy of highly centralized rule.

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